two coasts and three days, Bernthal told me tales of his boyhood that included more than a few moments of dysfunction and rage. He blithely confessed to things other people would keep hidden, and he seemed to do it not out of a sense of machismo but with a sense of wonder that the world had given him such a long leash. Listening to his stories about hanging around the upper-class outcasts of DC, I kept thinking of Glen, the sage and possibly disturbed friend of Sally Draper on Mad Men.
As a boy, Bernthal drew pictures of a guinea pig and a dog shooting teens with a crossbow. He got sent home early from a camping trip at age eight for trafficking copies of Playboy. And he had a violent side. At school, he watched his brother Tom meekly roll the ball back to an adversary during dodgeball. When the boy mocked Tom, Bernthal picked up another ball and whipped it into a stack of chairs near his brother’s tormentor. The force of the throw knocked the chairs on top of the kid.
But Bernthal also wants you to know that he came from a prosperous, caring family. His father was a powerful corporate lawyer in DC, and his mother watched over a handful of foster kids in addition to her three boys. The family lived in a tony suburban neighborhood, and Bernthal attended Sidwell Friends, where Chelsea Clinton was a few grades below him.
Bernthal was the middle brother, and he quickly established himself as the family enforcer. By unspoken agreement, he was the one to take revenge whenever his father or brothers got cheap-shotted in the regular basketball game they played when he was a kid. “They knew I would protect them,” Bernthal told me.
At Sidwell, he says, “we were suburban kids, but we all wanted to find the most dangerous things in a dangerous city.” The fact that they went to a posh school gave them a larger chip on their blazers. They fought kids from other schools with nunchakus and fists, and spent a lot of afternoons running from the cops.
When he was 17, Bernthal got caught by a DC policeman with some dime bags. He was taken to jail and put in a cell. “One thing that I’ve always been afraid of, my whole life, was crickets,” Bernthal told me at an Ojai biker bar. “I get into this jail cell and I’m sitting there and I see there’s two crickets in there.” An older man was put in the cell with Bernthal, which scared him until the man crushed the crickets. “I told him I was worried about how my dad was going to react to me getting arrested. He said he’d been in and out for 20 years and never heard someone mention their dad.”